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Ontario urged to expand COVID testing in schools in wake of 'scary' results at Thorncliffe Park – Toronto Star

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Ontario is being urged to expand testing of staff and students — especially in hot spots — after the first site in Toronto uncovered some 19 cases at one elementary school.

“When it comes to our schools and the safety of our students … we need a robust, fully staffed in-school testing program,” said New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles, her party’s education critic and a former trustee for the Toronto District School Board.

“Why, after all these months, is the government still reacting to this virus instead of listening to the experts, planning ahead and investing the resources necessary to keep our schools open and our students safe?”

Last week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced the voluntary, asymptomatic testing program for four areas in the province with high numbers of COVID-19 cases — Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa — leaving it up to boards and their local public health units to determine how to conduct the testing and where.

Toronto’s public and Catholic boards have announced initial locations for the testing, which began last Thursday at Thorncliffe Park elementary, where the 19 cases, including 18 students and one staff member, were found on that first day. Testing was to continue this week.

The board and public health have said the school does not need to be shut down because the cases were not transmitted in the school but rather the community, which has a much higher positivity rate.

Stiles said the province “has asked businesses to close, people have been asked to spend more and more time away from their families, and we owe it to staff and students and their families to test as much as possible.”

And, she added, “to me, the issue is protecting staff and students by knowing the extent” of COVID-19 cases, especially after the holiday break. “If we are going to have a safe and orderly return to class this New Year, we need to know exactly how many students have COVID.”

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said the 19 cases found at Thorncliffe Park is a “scary number” and shows the government should have started sooner.

“This will give parents a lot of anxiety,” he told reporters. “Ontario’s not been testing the way that we should be … this government’s really late to the game.”

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the result at Thorncliffe Park “highlights the need for additional testing, particularly in hot spot areas.”

In York Region, public health is working with the two local boards — public and Catholic — on school-based testing and hopes to reach about 4,000 students over the next three weeks, said Scott Cholewa, manager of infectious disease control.

It has designated 30 schools to target, and will be holding testing after school hours in local high schools. Some will be areas with recent or current cases, and some in areas where schools have had no cases — which it will use as a control group of sorts to “get a sense of baseline, asymptomatic positive level” — and areas that are “testing deserts” in the region, notably King Township and Georgina.

High schools were chosen as testing locations because “they have gyms, and have outside access or are larger and can accommodate people, and the structure can allow one way in, one way out, and no mixing of individuals who come in for testing,” Cholewa said, but both elementary and secondary students will be eligible.

Saliva testing will be used, “which is a less intrusive form of testing” then the typical nasopharyngeal swab, but with comparable accuracy, he added.

He said two different school testing sites will be set up this week, two the following week and the week before the holidays will have three sites.

Lecce said the provincial testing program is already working, given the findings at Thorncliffe Park school.

“Identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school. That is what the program is designed to do. It is what is taking place,” he said.

As well, he added “part of the benefit of having asymptomatic testing in those high-risk communities … is to provide us with more data to better understand not just where the risk is, but how we could further counter it.”

Stiles said she and MPP France Gélinas, her party’s health care critic, urged a province-wide school surveillance program in the summer and “it never happened.”

She said she can’t understand what took the government so long to act.

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Lecce, however, noted that “there are 86 per cent of schools in this province that have no active case at all” and that the province continues to announce “additional surge funding” for schools in areas with growing COVID cases.

Provincial statistics released Monday show that 670 or 14 per cent of the 4,828 schools have known cases of COVID-19, but the Thorncliffe results are throwing that statistic into question.

Four schools in Ontario are now closed because of outbreaks.  

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Pandemic claims another life in northern BC – Prince George Citizen

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The COVID-19 pandemic claimed another life in the Northern Health region, according to statistics released by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control on Friday.

The death brings the pandemic’s death toll in the region to 48. In a joint statement issued on Friday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix reported a total of nine new COVID-related deaths in the province. COVID-19 had claimed a total of 1,047 lives in B.C. as of Friday.

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“We offer our condolences to everyone who has lost their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Henry and Dix said.

There were 49 new cases of COVID-19 reported in the Northern Health region on Friday. The number of active cases in the region went up to 497, from 486 on Thursday, according to the B.C. CDC.

There were 44 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Northern Health region, including 13 in intensive care. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been 2,745 cases of COVID-19 in the region, of which 2,182 have recovered.

In their joint statement, Henry and Dix said there were a total of 509 new cases of COVID-19 in the province.

“There are 4,604 active cases of COVID-19 in the province. There are 349 individuals currently hospitalized with COVID-19, 68 of whom are in intensive care,” they said. “Since we last reported, we have had 101 new cases of COVID-19 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, 260 new cases in the Fraser Health region, 13 in the Island Health region, 86 in the Interior Health region, 49 in the Northern Health region and no new cases of people who reside outside of Canada.”

Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 60,117 cases in the province.

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“Currently, 7,132 people are under active public health monitoring as a result of identified exposure to known cases and a further 53,115 people who tested positive have recovered,” Henry and Dix said. “To date, 75,914 people have received a COVID-19 vaccine in B.C. We are disappointed to hear today there will be a short-term delay in the delivery of some of the Pfizer vaccines to British Columbia in the coming weeks as the company upgrades its production facility. We are working closely with the federal government to determine how this might impact our immunization rollout in the immediate term, and we will have more to share in the coming days.”

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In pandemic politics, timing is everything – Winnipeg Free Press

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Premier Brian Pallister said a disruption in the supply of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a good example of why Manitoba has been slow and cautious in its COVID-19 immunization rollout.

Government was prepared for this kind of bump in the road, he said.

However, according to the province’s own figures, Manitoba was falling behind its own vaccine schedule long before the Pfizer vaccine slowdown was announced.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister speaks at a press conference at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Friday.

Pfizer-BioNTech confirmed Friday it plans to delay some vaccine shipments (including to Canada) in the coming weeks to retool its manufacturing plants. Company officials said they expect to catch up by the end of March.

There are no details on how it will affect shipments to the provinces. But there will be a temporary reduction in doses.

Given how far behind Manitoba is in its immunization program, that slowdown may not make much of a difference.

But it does give the Pallister government political cover; the slower the shipments over the next few weeks, the easier it will be to catch up.

“I think this backs up our strategy,” Pallister said Friday. “Our vaccination team has focused a little less on trying to get good, short-term stats by rushing everything out and a little more on better, long-term protections by holding something back.”

Not exactly. The provincial government expressed confidence in the supply chain two weeks ago, announcing there was no longer any need to hold back 50 per cent of doses for followup booster shots.

“I think this backs up our strategy. Our vaccination team has focused a little less on trying to get good, short-term stats by rushing everything out and a little more on better, long-term protections by holding something back.”
— Premier Brian Pallister

Officials argued, rightly, there was enough certainty in the supply chain to rely on future shipments for second doses. They said they would maintain enough supply to meet demand for the following week. Beyond that, there was no plan to build up large inventories.

The province has fallen behind since then. The Pfizer delay buys time to catch up, while claiming plans were always in place for this. That’s why, late Friday, there was an announcement of a pause in new vaccination appointments (even though Pfizer shipments are still coming; there are just going to be fewer of them).

Pallister’s comments make for great political rhetoric, but they collide with the facts.

Manitoba has administered 13,539 doses of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines since the immunization program began in December. The total number of vaccines received to date is 38,890. If all 5,300 doses sent to First Nations earlier this month have been used, it means only 48 per cent of doses have been injected so far. Manitoba was scheduled to receive 7,400 doses of Moderna this week. If those doses have arrived (the province refuses to confirm when it receives shipments), only 41 per cent of doses have been administered. The rest are sitting in freezers.

Manitoba chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba chief provincial public health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin.

Nowhere in the Pallister government’s vaccine rollout plan did it say the province planned to stockpile that much inventory in case of a supply disruption.

Part of the reason for Manitoba’s slow rollout is the delay in getting vaccines to residents of personal-care homes. The province had enough inventory to start that program in early January, but didn’t begin until Monday. In a pandemic, every day matters.

The plan is to immunize an estimated 9,834 care-home residents over 28 days. The target for the first week was 1,157, but the number has fallen well short. As of Thursday, only 281 residents had received injections.

Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin would not provide any explanation for the low number Friday, other than to say there will be more updates next week.

To meet the federal government’s original shipment estimates for January and February (which will now change), Manitoba would have to administer almost 2,400 doses a day.

But just 1,130 people, including care-home residents, were vaccinated between Wednesday and Friday.

The province just can’t seem to get this program off the ground. But now there’s an excuse.

It remains unclear when the Pfizer doses will be delayed, or by how much. But politically, this could be a blessing in disguise for the Pallister government.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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Province claims residents seeing light at end of the COVID-19 tunnel – Nanaimo News NOW

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The optimistic statement from the province comes as the vaccine rollout suffered a blow.

Pfizer ran into production trouble while upgrading their facility, which the province admitted will create a short-term delay in the delivery of some vaccines.

Earlier on Friday, health minister Adrian Dix said the shortage will have a significant effect in February and March when only half of the 50,000 doses expected will be delivered.

Dix said this may mean public health officials will revisit leaving 35 days between the first and second dose of the vaccine, instead of the 21 to 28 days recommended by the World Health Organization. The gap was extended in an effort to provide more of the first dose to more people.

There was good news in Dr. Henry’s statement, which confirmed 509 new COVID-19 cases with 4,604 considered active. This is a decrease of roughly two hundred in two days.

Hospitalizations dipped to 349 with the number of people in critical care at its lowest point since November.

Island Health saw 13 new cases, with 175 considered active. This is a drop of more than 20 cases in two days. Ten people are in hospital for their symptoms including two receiving critical care.

The central Vancouver Island area remains the most affected in the health authority, with roughly two thirds of all active cases.

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